A friend of mine introduced me to the social game SimCity Buildit, currently available for mobile devices and tablets. Since I currently lack a strong mainstream entry in the SimCity franchise, I thought I'd see if this social game does anything to fill my long-neglected need for spline-reticulation or if it presented any new features that could be worth pursuing in a full PC version of the game. I don't generally play social games. I dabbled a bit with CivWorld and Sims Social, but that's about it. So I lack a lot of reference for judging SimCity Buildit in terms of other social games.

SimCity Buildit

Most of the fundamental SimCity elements are here: you set housing, commercial, and industrial zones, link them with roads, and build service buildings in order to satisfy various citizen needs within a certain radius. None of the deeper simulation elements of newer city-builder games are there. Individual citizens don't exist; there's just an abstract population, and happiness levels are set for each residential building. It's understandable for the limitations of the platform, and it provides a retro quality that reminds me of the good ol' days of SimCity 4.

But since this is a social game, the design has to put up numerous barriers to restrict the player's freedom to construct the city that they want. You have to "level up" your city by building new buildings. The number of residences that you can build, as well as the availability of industry and shops are also limited by your level or by the city population.

You also don't really have an economy to manage - at least not in the traditional sense. Citizens don't work at factories and shops. Instead, these buildings create certain building materials that are used to "upgrade" your residences into higher-density buildings that generate more tax revenue. This provides the core challenge of the game: you have to build the necessary materials in order to upgrade your buildings. Each of these materials take different amounts of real time to construct in your factories and shops (or you can buy the materials you need through real-money micro-transactions). As you level up, you'll unlock new materials, which residences will suddenly demand in order to upgrade their buildings.

SimCity Buildit - city
You don't have to manage employment, tax rates, or city ordinances; only resources and service coverage.

The ability to upgrade a building seems to be limited by its happiness level. Only happy residences can be upgraded, so you also need to provide city services such as power, water, waste disposal, emergency services, entertainment, and so on. But these services are very frustrating because they are tied to your city level. New services or entertainments become unlocked when you level up. That's fine. But once those services are unlocked, your entire city starts demanding them, and happiness plummets (as well as tax income, which is tied to happiness) because you don't already have the infrastructure ...

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Tropico 5

Without a decent, new iteration of SimCity for me to play, I've been looking high and low for new city simulator games in order to scratch that particular itch. I spent a large chunk of time a few years ago playing Cities XL, but never got around to reviewing it (maybe I'll post aretro-review in the future). Cities XL has so far been the best of the bunch and has a very wide scope, but it's developer has folded, and the game has never truly felt complete.

So I've started looking at more niche titles. I gave Children of the Nile and Caesar IV a go a few years ago, and both were pretty good, but just didn't hold me over for very long. So when Tropico 5 went on sale on Steam, I picked it up and put it on the shelf till I took a break from Civ. The game has also been released on XBox 360, and it has also been announced for a PS4 release sometime in 2015, but I've been playing the PC version.

The primary gimmick of the Tropico series is that the player isn't a mayor (as most city simulators claim); instead, you play as a dictator who is granted governorship of a small Caribean island-nation by a European power. It's basically a Cuba-simulator. At the start of a game, you must create a dictator avatar, and that character can have children and heirs in order to maintain your dynasty. From a meta standpoint, this gives much greater justification for the breadth of power that the player has over the development of the city. But this dictatorial theme isn't just a gimmick; the game actually does use it for gameplay purposes.

Tropico 5 - war
Poor management of relations with internal factions and external nations
can lead to revolts and open warfare on your streets.

In addition to balancing workers versus jobs and various citizen satisfaction metrics, the player also has to worry about maintaining your position of power and dealing on the international stage. Much like the Democracy games, the player actually has to win elections in order to avoid losing the game, and so you must balance the favor of various competing factions. It's nowhere near as deep as Democracy, since there's only about four factions (which change depending on the current era), but it does add an extra challenge that a game like SimCity lacks. After all, your mayor-hood in SimCity is indisputable.

It can be hard to manage the favor of these various factions and their members, since it's hard sometimes to tell exactly what is making them happy or unhappy...

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The company that I work for is switching over to using a new set of software for our products. Because of this, several members of our development staff were required to travel to our development studio in Manchester, United Kingdom in order to be trained on the new software.

Downtown Manchester
Downtown Manchester, January 30, 2015.

As one of the senior developers in my office, I was asked to be one of the representatives of our studio for this training, and I had the good fortune of being able to go on my very first trip abroad. It wasn't technically my first visit to a foreign country, as I've visited Canada several times. Nor was it my first trip over an ocean, since I've visited Hawai'i. But the trip to Canada was many years ago; before a passport was even needed to cross the border, so it didn't feel like as big of a deal.

The training element was a bit underwhelming. The training schedule coincided with a major release deadline, so the engineer who was supposed to be providing the training and answering our questions had limited availability due to some last minute crises that he had to handle. So instead, we had a room full of people from different development studios in different countries all trying to bumble our way through the new software together.

But we did still learn some things, and even taught the lead engineer a thing or two!

A piece of advice to tech companies: don't schedule training sessions to begin a couple days before a major software release deadline - especially if you are flying developers in from halfway around the world to participate.

A British perspective on the World Wars

It wasn't all work though. I did try to do some touristy things.

I arrived in Manchester early Sunday morning after a red-eye flight from Philadelphia. After checking into the hotel to drop off my luggage, I took the cable car trolley back into the city and visited the Imperial War Museum (North). The main museum is in London (which I did not get to visit, other than a lay-over on the return trip), but there is a small branch of the museum in Manchester as well.

Imperial War Museum - tank
A tank displayed outside the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester, U.K.

One of the interesting things about this museum (compared to most history museums in the States) is the emphasis on the domestic impacts of war. Several exhibits were dedicated exclusively to the effects that the world wars had on the general populace [More]

Final Fantasy - all logos

Despite being great games, the character development systems of many Final Fantasy games have really weird qualities that put them at odds with the games' narratives. One of the things that separates games from other media such as books or movies is that games are interactive experiences. The best games typically have gameplay that informs story and / or a story that informs the gameplay. This is especially true of RPGs, which are generally designed entirely around their stories and characters.

While the combat and character development systems of most Final Fantasy games do have a basis in the game's narrative, some of the Final Fantasy games have gameplay systems that actually pull the player out of the story and create strong disconnects between the gameplay and the narrative.

Yet, we still love these games. That is either a testament to the overall quality of the games, or to the general gullibility of gamers.

Perhaps the two most popular Final Fantasy games are the worst offenders in terms of having gameplay mechanics that aren't well integrated into the narrative.

Final Fantasy VII is widely regarded as best game of the series, and it frequently appears on lists of "the Best Games Ever". Its story, characters, and locations have become iconic. And its primary character-development mechanic, materia, is generally well-received by fans and critics. The materia itself is even a functional object in the game world and an integral part of the plot, instead of just an abstract game mechanic.

Final Fantasy VII - battle
All skills and abilities (except Limit Breaks) are granted by equipping materia,
making all character functionally almost identical.

However, this materia system does have one significant drawback: It severely limits the role of the characters in the actual gameplay.

From a gameplay perspective, the characters of Final Fantasy VII are mostly blank slates. The only mechanics that are unique to characters is their weapon classes and unique limit breaks. The weapons are mostly cosmetic, since the combat mechanics don't differentiate them much. There are slight variations in the number and arrangement of materia slots between characters' weapons, but these are minor differences. Limit breaks are infrequently used and are of little consequence ...

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Advocates of a college football championship playoff may feel a little vindicated after the inaugural championship game earlier this week. The #4 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes defeated the #2 ranked Oregon Ducks with a decisive three-score lead. And they did this after also defeating the #1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.

For years, fans of college football and critics of the BCS (Bowl Championship Series) have been complaining that leaving the championship eligibility up to a subjective vote of a committee is unfair. These fans and critics have long proposed a playoff system that would allow more teams to compete for the national title. And this year, the fourth-seeded team - a team that would not have had an opportunity to even compete for a Championship title in the previous BCS-selection process - won the title.

But this outcome is still not without controversy. The age-old argument of "our school got snubbed" has not gone away. I'm sure that after watching Ohio State run the tables in the playoff, the coaches, players, and fans of both Baylor and TCU had to have thought "that could have been us!" And they're right.

Both those teams were left out of the playoff due to misfortunes of mathematics. Even though Alabama (#1), Oregon (#2), Ohio State (#4), Baylor (#5), and TCU (#6) all finished the regular season with only one loss, Baylor and TCU had one fewer win on account of having played fewer games. Only Florida State (#3) finished the regular season with a perfect record.

NCAA football 2014 Champion Ohio State
#4 Ohio State defeated #1Alabama and #2 Oregon to become 2014's national champions.

So while the playoff did consist of the four "winningest" teams in the country, Baylor and TCU didn't have an opportunity to win as many games. Part of this is their fault, since the individual schools do have the privilege of setting their own schedules. Had Baylor and TCU scheduled an extra non-conference game (possibly even one against a Division II school), they could very well have been 12-1 along with 'Bama, Oregon, and Ohio State. But they didn't.

NCAA football 12-team playoff bracket
A proposed 12-team playoff similar to the current NFL playoff model.
Depicts the 2014 conference champs and 2 wild cards, with top 4 teams receiving 1st-round bye.

But what if TCU and Baylor had played (and won) an extra game and ended the season 12-1? In that case, the selection of undefeated Florida State would still seem like an obvious pick for one of the four playoff spots. But the remaining three would have been a much more subjective selection ...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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